Over the past week, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s failure to show up in person for two major back-to-back global events – the G20 leaders’ meeting in Rome and the United Nations-led climate conference in Glasgow, known as COP26 – has triggered intense speculation about China’s priorities and earned a jibe from US President Joe Biden . On Tuesday, Biden described Xi’s decision not to attend the climate summit as “a big mistake” and said China ceded its influence as a world leader on the global stage. Some international media depicted Xi’s no-show as “snubbing” the conference, which was aimed at clinching a new global deal to fight climate change , one of the world’s most pressing problems. More than 100 world leaders converged in Glasgow along with tens of thousands of officials, researchers, activists and protesters under the gaze of the global media. Xi was not alone in skipping the summit. Others who did not attend included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. But given the fact that China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, followed by the US, the media spotlight on Xi’s absence has raised concerns about China’s commitment to fighting climate change . Some media commentators have even interpreted Xi’s no-show at the two events as a signal of the Chinese leadership’s inward turning mentality at a time when its overall relations with the US and its Western allies are in a spiral. Xi Jinping makes ‘big mistake’ by not showing up at COP26, says Biden By the look of things, China’s international standing has taken another hit, but the worries about China turning inward or its lack of sincerity in the fight against global warming are misplaced. Neither Xi nor the six other members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee have left China since early 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread in the world. There are practical and political reasons for their collective hunkering down. China has the world’s most stringent pandemic controls, with its borders largely closed to foreign visitors. Any traveller into the country will have to spend at least 14 days in a quarantine hotel – 21 days for those arriving in the capital Beijing. If Xi or any other Chinese leader undertakes an overseas trip but skips the quarantine protocol, it will not go down well with the public. Then, there are the political reasons. The G20 summit in Rome and the climate conference came just a short while before the party is to hold its annual plenary session of all its top officials, set to begin on November 8, which is widely expected to pass a resolution to further bolster Xi’s authority. Xi therefore decided to join the G20 meeting via video links and submit a written statement for the climate conference. He also sent State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi as a special envoy to attend the G20 meeting in person, and in Glasgow he was represented by Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate official. China’s domestic political considerations may have put its leaders at a disadvantage in terms of public perception of their in-person diplomacy. But that does not mean that China is retreating from the global stage. Xi calls on countries to fight climate change, but makes no new commitments In fact, over the past few years, Xi has kept beating the drum for fully supporting the United Nations and the UN-led international rules. For instance, China has sent over 50,000 peacekeeping troops to nearly 30 UN peacekeeping missions since 1990 and has contributed more peacekeepers than any other permanent members of the Security Council. While Xi may have hunkered down in the country, he has been busy conducting diplomacy over the phone and via video links. Last month alone, he held phone calls or video links with a number of world and regional leaders including Japan’s new prime minister Fumio Kishida, Germany’s departing chancellor Angela Merkel, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On the issue of climate change, Biden may have scored points by chiding Xi for the no-show and China’s unwillingness to offer any deeper emission cuts, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the US just rejoined the Paris climate accord this year and Biden himself apologised for his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision to leave the agreement. In fact, as Biden tried to reclaim the US leadership in the fight against global warming in Glasgow, his administration’s climate credibility was still in question as the divisions within his own Democratic Party meant that the US Congress failed to pass a US$1.75 trillion spending package which included US$555 billion in climate provisions. China has said it aims to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2060. In the run-up to the Glasgow conference, China was under increasing pressure to offer much deeper cuts but refused to budge as Xie told reporters in Glasgow that China was unable to rein in its reliance on coal-fired power plants any quicker than it already was. China’s goal of net zero emissions by 2060 may be one decade later than the US or EU but is 10 years earlier than India, the world’s third-largest emitter. Xi to G20: ‘developed countries’ should take lead on emissions Countering Biden’s jibe, Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, responded on Wednesday that “actions speak louder than words” and China’s actions in response to climate change were real. Indeed, China has received little credit for its commitment to fighting climate change. Since Xi came to power in late 2012, he has made environmental protection and promoting green development one of his top priorities. Moreover, China tends to overachieve its targets once the government sets its heart on them. For instance, back in 2017, China fulfilled its 2020 carbon intensity target three years ahead of schedule. Ironically, Xi’s intention to seek a possible third term in 2022 or even a fourth term in 2027, which has caused considerable worries about his authoritarian rule at home and abroad, may mean that he could personally oversee China’s climate promises being translated into actions in a much longer time frame. By contrast, the same thing cannot be said about the climate credibility of the US, judging by the sharply divided partisan politics and shifts of wind in the latest gubernatorial elections. Wang Xiangwei is a former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post . He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper.